Wednesday, June 06, 2007

History Lesson

Yesterday Adrian Johns of the University of Chicago spoke about "The Identity Engine: Printing and Publishing in the Creation of the Knowledge Economy." Johns is a remarkable media historian in that he can talk knowledgeably about the history of theories of information while also unearthing cryptohistories about craft practices around print culture. He's an important figure for scholars of new media, because in his tome on printing history up to the Industrial Revolution, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, he takes the truisms that print is associated with fixity, uniformity, knowledge, rationality, and institutional authority and questions the truth of those cultural clich├ęs and the general evolutionary paradigm for new media from the oral, written, and print traditions that Marshall McLuhan and others accept uncritically. As you can see from my photograph of a deformed book on display in our front office, printed books still undeniably involve certain economies of labor and skill.

Johns is currently working on a massive history of piracy from 1600 to the present, but in yesterday's talk he took up where The Nature of the Book left off to look at how the Industrial Revolution didn't actually resolve many of the incongruities around acts of replication that he described in his prior work, even as copyright was succeeding craft and the publisher was succeeding the printer's chapel. I enjoyed hearing about what he called "perpetual" campaigns against copyright and patent law with cultural themes that continue to resonate in the coming era of the Internet book. As someone who has listed the Marquis of Condorcet on my "Who I'd Like to Meet" listing on MySpace, I was interested to hear about how this early theoretician of probabilistic reasoning and contemporary political order also had been involved in reform efforts of the print industry.

The bulk of Johns' talk was about Charles Babbage, the famed progenitor of modern computing, who created the difference engine and imagined an analytical engine to come. Johns examined Babbage's advocacy for what Johns called "identity engines" and Babbage's promulgation of the new printing technology of the stereotype. Apparently Babbage was particularly interested in improving printing accuracy for mathematical tables, which Johns described as an artifact of pre-computing society, although -- as this photograph shows -- tables are still used at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

There was a lively question-and-answer session afterwards as well, in which Johns talked about how his experiences as a teenager setting up his own software company endowed him with a permanent skepticism about claims of imminence and novelty, and he said that was where he learned about the craft of computing, the labor of production, and the aesthetics of code. Johns also compared the Habermassian paradigm of the Enlightenment coffee house to the sometimes disordered social organizations surrounding the building of wikis. My colleague Julia Lupton inquired about the role of craft in contemporary information culture, a subject clearly related to her "Design Your Life" project. Johns' material about the politics of typography made me think about the "Thinking with Type" work of Julia's sister Ellen Lupton in a new way.

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